Team USA impressive after shaking off early jitters
LAS VEGAS -- Jerry Colangelo was checking his cell phone messages in the tunnel beneath the stands a few minutes after the final buzzer when I asked him for a report card on his own little Dream Team.
"The effort is there, and everybody is on the same page -- and I know you didn't see that in Athens," he said.
He's got a point there, and thus far everything seems to be going according to plan for the man in charge of restoring America's rightful place in the world of international basketball.
After a sluggish first quarter in which they missed eight of nine 3-point attempts and led just 29-26 (so much for the idea of dominating every single quarter), the Americans got a boost from their second unit of Kirk Hinrich, Brad Miller, Gilbert Arenas, Shane Battier and Joe Johnson to close the first half with a 19-2 run that eventually became a 31-2 run once the third quarter began. The surge turned a 33-29 deficit into a 57-35 lead, and the rest of the night was showtime for the U.S. players who appear genuinely determined to start a new chapter in the evolution of Team USA.
Just listen to Carlos Arroyo, who was a centerpiece of the biggest humiliation the Americans have suffered over the past four years (a 19-point victory over the United States in the Athens opener) while losing six of their 17 games at the 2002 World Championship and 2004 Olympics.
"It's a team that has a lot of pride, and with what they went through the last couple years, there's nothing to expect but greatness from this team. It's a team that's hungry for a medal, that's hungry to show the world that they're not what they've shown for the last couple years," Arroyo said.
The Americans forced 25 turnovers in their 114-69 victory and got 18 points from Carmelo Anthony, 16 from Antawn Jamison and 14 points, five assists and four steals from Dwyane Wade, who stopped after one breathtaking breakaway dunk to salute a group of U.S. Air Force personnel seated in the front row in their desert fatigues.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski also singled out Shane Battier for praise, and it'll be interesting to see whether Battier will beat out Bruce Bowen for one of the final spots on the roster (The Americans are bringing 14 players to Asia, but only 12 will be on the active roster). Bowen was the only U.S. player who did not score Thursday night, and he also was the only American to shoot an airball.
The U.S. players have been staying at the fancy Wynn Hotel and Casino, running across Americans from all corners of the country.
"Every time you walk through the hotel lobby, there's people excited about USA Basketball and wanting to know how practice is going and how guys are doing. We understand that we represent more than the organizations we play for in the NBA, and we represent more than the name on the back. We represent the name on the front of our jersey, and that means a lot to every guy on this team," Wade said.
Said coach Mike Krzyzewski: "There was something about being here that has helped to create a national spirit for our team."
The next challenge for the Americans will be to keep their effort and enthusiasm at a peak through their exhibition tour of China and South Korea, with a side stop in Hong Kong, before arriving in Sapporo, Japan, for their first meaningful game Aug. 19.
The last version of Team USA also looked great in its first exhibition game, also against Puerto Rico, but things quickly changed after they boarded a plane and made the long journey overseas. They got stomped by Italy and barely defeated Germany in their second and third exhibitions, then had a great tuneup against Serbia-Montenegro in Belgrade before taking a step backward in a tight game against Turkey in Istanbul. By the time that team arrived in Athens it was still figuring itself out, and we all remember what happened in Athens.
And so while I am left every bit as impressed as Colangelo, I'm not ready to concede the gold medal to this team just yet. There's a long way to go, and strange things happen in international basketball games. Let's see how they look two weeks from now when the comforts of Vegas will be long behind them. Better yet, let's see how they look a month from now when they're bound to be road-weary right when they need to be at their peak. That's when the medal round will be held, and there's no guarantee that they'll be playing as well then as they are right now.
Chris Sheridan, a national NBA reporter for the past decade, covers the league for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.